HOW DOES JAPANESE SOCIETY CONSTRUCT SEXUALITY?
In any culture, sexual crimes are defined in terms of whatever falls outside what society perceives as normal sexual relations. When considering how a society punishes sexual crimes, therefore, it is important to understand how that society understands ‘normal’ sexual relations; and as Burns (2005: 9) argues, we must bear in mind that the dominant understandings used to define what is normal tend to be masculine ones.
Male and female sexualities are socially constructed as different in many countries of the world. However, in Japan there are specific conditions – particularly the prevalent sex industry and the widespread availability of violent pornography – which have an important impact on the understanding of male and female sexuality.
Although the establishments of the highly visible sex industry, or mizu shōbai, are widely varied in terms of price and services on offer, in the vast majority of them men are waited on by women and sexuality, if not full sex, is for sale. Using prostitutes is less stigmatised in Japan than in some other countries, reflecting the social construction of male sexuality as well as Japan’s non-Christian religious history (Allison, 1994). The availability of sex for sale makes female sexuality into a commodity; as MacKinnon (1989: 172) puts it, ‘women’s sexuality is, usually, a thing to be stolen, sold, bought, bartered, or exchanged by others.’ This changes the perception of rape, from a violent and humiliating attack on a person’s autonomy, to theft of a possession. Furthermore, this concept robs women of sexual autonomy; they are mere objects, passive recipients of male desire. This is a gender-biased view: women’s sexuality is constructed not from women’s point of view, but from a (heterosexual) male point of view. This has far-reaching implications for the conceptualisation of sexual assault.
There is a huge amount of pornography available in Japan, much of which depicts violence and degradation against females; rape-themed videos account for about 20% of the pornography at chain video-rental stores (Associated Press, 2003). Rape-centred pornography is also widely available in manga (cartoon) form. Pornography is considered so normal that men will often read violent manga pornography, or men’s weekly magazines with high pornographic content, openly on the train, even when sitting next to female passengers.
In pornographic manga, sex, even when consensual, is generally something which is done to women rather than something in which they are active players. In fact, when female characters do express sexual desires of their own they are often rewarded with disinterest or anger from male characters (Allison, 1996: 62, 67). Furthermore, female characters are often shown as coming to enjoy their pain and degradation (Ōbuchi, 1991: 121). The message this gives out to readers is that women should not express their own sexual autonomy, but should enjoy being the mere objects of aggressive male desire. Again, this is a gender-biased take on female sexuality, seen from the point of view of the male obtaining pleasure from the female rather than the female defining her own pleasure.